The Pronoun Paradox: limitations of language in a non binary world

Rainbow painted faceAs a writer I’m often frustrated by the inability of the English language to provide simple gender non-specific pronouns that flow nicely in narrative and include everyone, instead falling back on the vague yet grammatically incorrect ‘they’. My primary school English teacher would turn in her grave.


‘They,’ She shouts in my mind each time, ‘is not correct! “They” means a group! Surely you do not mean “they” climbed into my bed? Were there 6 of them?’ (He he he. Sometimes.)

A woman in black lingerieIndeed, she would admonish, the correct phrasing is ‘he or she’ when one wants to not specify sex. But is that even now the case? Not everyone wants to identify as a he or she. By phrasing it in this way particularly, surely it sounds deliberately exclusive of trans, intersex, non binary and gender fluid individuals, which is not what I want to do AT ALL. Almost all of that which I write applies at least as much to non binary partners, lovers and friends as it does to cis-gendered heterosexuals who are happy to fall neatly into a box.

Gay pride coloured play dough being mouldedClassically, the gender-neutral term was considered to be ‘He’. I’m not going to do that. It’s a use that’s deeply rooted in patriarchy. Erasure of women from text. It’s also not usually how it’s used these days and will confuse people. If everything is ‘He’ it sounds like some real man bashing. He did this, he did that. It sounds like women are excluded from discussion at all. Pretty much any unpleasant phenomenon that’s discussed as perpetrated by men can also be carried out by women, and non-binary identifying individuals.

Two gender non binary peopleI’m not even going there with using ‘it’. A friend suggested the Swedish term ‘Hen’, but it’s so rare in English it will turn my text indecipherable (as well as really throwing off my google search terms and filling my visits log with poultry fanciers).

HenEven as a cis woman, I feel like I’d happily live in a world where the specifics of our genitals weren’t constantly referenced with he and she, his and hers. Why does this need to be indicated in every sentence?

Much to the disappointment, and perhaps surprise, of most male authors, women tend to think about their sex a lot less than seems imagined. Although I write a fair few steamy scenes, thoughts of my anatomy are rarely at the forefront of my mind through the day. Unlike erotica and many supposedly less sexual works might have you believe, I don’t burst through the door at work, cherry lips shining and breasts softly bouncing against the lace of my white c-cup bra. I don’t walk with a wiggle and a swish down the street in my heels, revelling in the hungry looks of men I pass, tossing my hair playfully and exposing the soft, pale skin of my swanlike neck.

Of course not. I’m crossing the street, looking out for traffic. I’m coming to work wishing for more coffee and wondering where I lost my umbrella. Just like any man, woman, gender non-specified person does. My sex doesn’t need to be reaffirmed in every sentence I’m referenced in. I’d be quite happy for 99% of my life to have gender as a total non-issue. I’m mostly just a person.

All in all, I’m not quite sure the best way to write in gender non-specified ways. I suppose I will have to continue with ‘they’ and wrestle the ghost of my English teacher until society’s linguistics catch up in some sort of unified way. Either that, or ensure that every intimate encounter I have and document really does deserve the term ‘they’. Ahh, sexlife goals.

Happy hunting my baby ducklings xxx

Unicorns and how to hunt them book

One comment

  1. How far does this go, for instance, what of gendered languages like Spanish, French and German?

    There is a big difference between wanting a term to describe someone who doesn’t associate with he/she, him or her, and its application in language. Language, which is alive, with its own history, cultural identity and rules that have built up over time.

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